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Off the Record

In the peripheral photographs of Zofia Rydet, I look for moments of flagging concentration.

by Filip Springer

One says “Rydet,” and a whole cavalcade of images briskly marches through our heads. You can close your eyes to focus, but in fact this makes no difference: these photographs have stamped themselves onto the collective cerebral cortex, and there they shall remain. We summon them in a heartbeat. We even know how to take them ourselves. We are forever imitating the queen. Sometimes we adjust the frame a bit too precisely. Sometimes we overdo the flash. But we know how to proceed because Zofia Rydet showed us how.

Let’s say it was not so difficult. And so sometimes, when we are out of ideas, we shamelessly emulate her. This, however, is where we stop: no one, after all, has the endurance, the patience, and the consistency to carry on for so many years, for so many thousands of photographs. She took her method from the huts of rural Poland out into the wider world as if unable to free herself from her vocation; as if seeking to photograph everything, everywhere, in order to assemble an absolute record. As if she were a maniac. In this mania of hers is the power and the greatness of Zofia Rydet, as much as it is our weakness and smallness. For today we have no time for the assemblage of a great record. Today, we barely manage to take notes.

And thus, it suffices to say “Rydet” for all of this to flash before our eyes. Her photographs have become part of the technique and sensibility of hundreds of Polish photographers. As such, I am searching for everything that stands opposed to her—that which is hers but with which she is not associated. Un-Rydet photographs, non-record images, anti-records, a-records. I am searching for the photographs that are of lesser importance when it comes to determining who Rydet was and what she and her body of work stood for—when, in other words, establishing her legacy. The imperfect and trivial pictures. The kind that, in our day, clog up the memory cards embedded within our mobile phones. “It doesn’t cost me anything, might as well take the snapshot,” we think, and we trigger the shutter (read: we tap the screen because things have already gone to the dogs).

I choose, to begin with, photographs in which all of those people, those faces, and those weather-beaten hands folded into laps do not appear. This seems a logical starting point, for if “Rydet” connotes people, then “un-Rydet” will be marked by their absence. I find photographs of interiors without their inhabitants. They look like routine rehearsals for a properly framed capture, like the artist sniffing out the terrain and, to put it plainly, attempting to figure out where in the room to position herself with her camera. I catch myself doing the same thing before I ask someone to stand before the lens: I photograph the backdrop and see how it looks on the camera’s liquid crystal display, to avoid fiddling with the frame in front of the subject. This is how we apprehend Rydet’s unpeopled photographs today, as if she took them to see how the final, peopled portrait would turn out. But I look at these images and it occurs to me that this could not, of course, have been the case at all, that these are not merely disposable test shots, for Rydet had no LCD screen to consult and was instead committing each frame directly to analogue film. And so this is a dead end. These photographs are also important. It is a truly dire situation!

In these photographs of empty interiors our attention is captured by one other aspect: Rydet’s unfailing focus upon the task at hand. Every frame reflects an awareness of the significance of the activity, the import of the undertaking. The technical aspects of an image are at times of secondary importance to the record itself, indeed to the very act of documenting, which is meant to establish proof of existence.

On I press, in search of moments of flagging concentration. When not in the actual act of creating her portraits of “people in interiors,” she must have done something in these villages, seen something and captured it, stopped somewhere, eaten, rested. She must have sat down because of the heat, taken cover from the rain, perhaps during a storm, or because a storm was about to hit. Dear Lord, the legwork she must have done to have taken all those photographs, the number of people she must have spoken to, the cups of tea she must have drunk, the quantity of cake she must have consumed and complimented. (Because how could it have been otherwise? She could hardly have sat her subjects down right away on a stool—flash!—and the light captures their souls just like that.) Some trace of all of the above must have been preserved upon film. Film remembers, after all, though memory cards no longer have this ability. So I am looking for photographs which, in a film script, could be described with the following sentence: “Here’s our photographer approaching the village along a dusty road.”

I discover landscapes. Sometimes whole series of them. We can discern a process by which these pictures were constructed. At the end we have a composed photograph, although this is not what interests me. The initial photographs are the most noteworthy here, the ones taken on the spur of the moment, before a person stops to think that she’s composing something, that she’s structuring a frame. The first photograph, when we put the camera to our eye and just shoot. And once again, the insistent digital analogy, because in our day this is a simple test to see if something is suitable for photographing. To see the landscape on a screen, if it is worth working on, or else a thing to be forgotten and one should simply move on. Later these tests are erased, they are considered worthless. Rydet had no such opportunity to erase without a second thought.

A few such incidental pictures do exist. I gaze upon them with delight. How awkward, banal, generic. Fields scorched by the sun, dusty huts and fences, some paths, trees planted along them. An archaic car flashes by in the distance. Everything is slightly over-illuminated, as if enveloped by an unending heat wave. The scenery and photographs are painfully tedious. Yes, this is how I want to learn about Zofia Rydet. Here, in these photographs, she has allowed her concentration to dip. She is distracted, sloppy even. Here she is not fulfilling a task. These are photographs taken on the road, snapshots, moments captured in-between what was and what is about to come. I search for her reasons for taking these pictures. The rhythm of a row of trees, the curious shape of a rooftop, a perspective of roads where they converge. Simple pleasure in form stamped onto a monotonous landscape. These are the first photographs of a series in which she was not thinking about photography—she simply lifted the camera to her eye and triggered the shutter. These are the most compelling.

Studying the Sociological Record and its photographs, I discover that I am slightly afraid of Rydet. The images look as though they caused her pain. Or at least that they were not pleasant to take. As if this were a necessity that overrode her own needs. A vocation accepted with humility, but with no enthusiasm. And yet, when I consider these uncharacteristically slapdash photographs of meadows, fields, and roads, the anxiety gives way to affection. They testify to the fact that, at times, she had a laid-back approach, she allowed herself to be offhand with her photography, she got carried away by her emotions. That she was only human, in spite of the fact that she was carrying out an inhuman task.

(Translated from the Polish by Soren Gauger)

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